Legends Of Runeterra Review - Much Ado About Nautilus

  • First Released Oct 14, 2019
  • PC

Legends of Runeterra brings dynamic card design to life in a way that undeniably draws attention to both its snappy back-and-forth and the colorful world of League of Legends.

Runeterra is the world of League of Legends, Riot’s MOBA that has arguably experienced a Golden Age of esports in the past few years. The MOBA has undergone various lore overhauls, but centralized all of its bits and pieces in 2016 to come up with a vision for Runeterra and its competing factions, as well as the backstories of the game’s champions. The latest step in fleshing out this world is Legends of Runeterra, Riot Games’ flagship contribution to the current online card game market--with DNA that’s a highly entertaining splice job between streamlined design sensibilities and touches that harken back to the original card game great, Magic: The Gathering.

The realm of Runeterra feels fully realized here, and part of that is how the game revolves around the various in-universe factions that are currently playable: Piltover & Zaun, Bilgewater, Demacia, Freljord, Ionia, Noxus, and the Shadow Isles. You’re not playing for rounds of ale at a tavern; this feels like a conflict of a uniquely larger scale because of the game’s insistence on you not embodying a hero but instead commanding them.

Each faction has these heroes, though they’re called champions. They’re souped-up cards representative of characters from League of Legends who are somewhere between Legendaries in Hearthstone and Planeswalkers in Magic: The Gathering--game-changing because they’re stronger than your average unit, but not game-breaking. The factions have their own unique playstyles that span the whole spectrum from aggro to control, spell-heavy to flood-dependent, and more. The champions themselves all buy into each faction’s playstyle fantasy, with flashy animations that depict their unique personalities and strengths.

Each deck is built from two core factions; which two factions you choose is left entirely up to you. You can build a Zaun and Ionia combination deck that relies on cards that reward you for both making and spending spells. You can alternatively decide to build a deck all about flooding the board or powering up attacking allies by going with Demacia and Frejlord.

Each faction’s core identity is intended to be very different, and with more factions to be added down the line, it’s likely that the game’s meta will evolve for as long as new champions are introduced. The recent Bilgewater patch introduced fan-favorite additions from League of Legends like Miss Fortune, and with new champions regularly released into Runeterra’s ecosystem via Riot’s MOBA, it’s easy enough to see how a steady stream of trickle-down hero introductions can give the game a sense of content longevity.

Where a healthy amount of Legends of Runeterra’s charm lies for the average player, though, is likely going to be in the fact that it’s eye-catching. It’s all shiny and chrome with large buttons, seamless scaling of visuals in windowed mode, and cosmetic pets that will be a hit with the Little Legends crowd, and card effects both look and sound spectacular as they play out across the board.

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Whether you’re doing something as simple as forcing an enemy to block one of your units or leveling up a champion, the sound design complements whatever’s happening visually: cards are dragged into place with a satisfying thunk, and going Deep (powering up, essentially) with an aquatic unit has an answering croon worthy of the Loch Ness monster.

It’s these touches that make Legends of Runeterra appealing from an aesthetic perspective, but the test of a card game’s stickiness is more than whether or not it looks good; it’s about the pace of play. On that front, Legends of Runeterra’s quick and inherently reactive playstyle feels itself like a reaction to some of the complaints that have been leveled at its competitors. Matches are reasonably fast on the face of things: Everyone’s working with 20 Nexus HP (the health of your base), and that’s what you’ll have to knock off each other to win. However, unlike Hearthstone, there are distinct phases that make up each player’s individual round.

The flow generally looks a little like this: summoning units or casting spells (who don’t have summoning sickness, which in itself speeds up play), declaring attackers, declaring blockers, countering with spells or other unit effects, and the resolution of both combat and Slow spell effects. There’s an Attack token that flip-flops between players every round, ensuring predictability of whether you’ll be attacking or defending at any given time.

With each card played, your opponent is allowed to make a corresponding move of their own--it feels a lot more like a game of chess, where pieces move across the board in the service of a larger gambit, while very much reacting to immediate threats as they occur.

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This sort of play generates a very back-and-forth flow, both within your individual round and also within an individual match. The balance of power can shift in a single round quite effectively, especially in spell-heavy duels where players have a lot of mana and enough cards on the bench to counter each other turn for turn. You can, in theory, resolve a board state before you even get to the combat phase by taking out your opponent’s units while they do the same to yours because of rolling spell effects and card passives that come into play once attackers have been declared.

This is the kind of experience that you can’t quite get from existing offerings without a framework that raises the difficulty floor. Magic: The Gathering has often been noted as being a game that can feel impenetrable to newcomers, but Legends of Runeterra has a number of ways in which it tries to ease first-time players into the experience.

Making factions the essence of deckbuilding is one such way, but making cards themselves strongly tied to easily identifiable champions and playstyles is another. Elise, the eight-legged arachnowoman champion, summons Spider units when she attacks. The faction she’s from, the Shadow Isles, has spell cards that buff Spider units specifically, and plenty of cards with an interaction called Last Breath: Cards either summon units or trigger an effect when they die, so killing off allies can set you on an inexorable death march to victory.

Even if you don’t know the first thing about what type of terminology describes that sort of deck, it’s very clear how a deck with Elise is going to work. Because of the limited number of champions available, and the fact that she’s the only one who ties in with arachnids like this, if you see an enemy playing spiders, then you can intuit what to expect even if you're going in blind.

Legends of Runeterra tries its hardest to be something that’s easy to pick up and difficult to put down, and the way that it limits real-money purchases rewards your time investment instead of a monetary one.

The same goes for every champion and its accompanying archetype--encountering a new one in the wild feels challenging but not daunting since you have a common base of understanding. Legends of Runeterra’s various modes (Expeditions and regular PvP) offer you the chance to sharpen your understanding of how to compete against others, whether it’s building a deck from random presets that you can refine between victorious moments or just testing out a new formula with no restrictions on your creativity.

Expeditions will be familiar to those who have played Hearthstone’s Arena mode. You draft a deck from selections of cards, picking two faction archetypes and then a combination of cards that will ideally take you to multiple victories as you progress through a series of matches against other players who have done the same. When you win, you get the chance to tweak your deck which Hearthstone’s Arena mode fails to give you; you can trade cards that haven’t performed for you in your match-ups for ones with more synergy, allowing you to refine your strategy as you go, pushing you on to greater heights.

Other quality-of-life innovations to what’s already available in current online card games include the underrated Oracle function, present in the form of an eye to the left of your board. If you’re not sure about how your chosen actions in a turn might play out (because let’s face it, it can be hard to track a bevy of nested card effects, especially if you’re trying to calculate lethal), Oracle will tell you by showing off the board state when your actions have concluded--an obvious game-changer if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed.

There are also Challenges that are fleshed-out tutorials to acquaint you with various champions and how their archetypes work, though they’re clearly also vehicles to deliver the lore of Runeterra. Each Challenge gives you valuable experience with various types of decks or card passives, and they all tell a story of their own that’s rooted in how various champions conflict with each other. With each Challenge, you’re not only gaining mechanical knowledge; you’re also being exposed to the nuances of the space that each faction and its representative units occupy in the in-game world, replete with engaging cinematic effects and more.

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However, while champions are introduced organically via those Challenges, some of the ways that Legends of Runeterra explains or handles its mechanics via card text aren’t always obvious. Connecting with these stronger cards is one thing, but separate deck mechanics like going Deep (powering up cards based on rapidly drawing and discarding others), or Scout (allowing a second Attack round in a turn but only if your first go exclusively uses units with this passive) aren’t as easily explained in practice. Those who play League of Legends already might be able to intuit a fair number of card effects without even reading them, just based on familiarity with a champion or faction’s ethos, but the same can’t be said for those approaching this with totally fresh eyes.

That being said, Legends of Runeterra tries its hardest to be something that’s easy to pick up and difficult to put down, and the way that it limits real-money purchases rewards your time investment instead of a monetary one. Leveling up various factions by using their cards leads to cool rewards like new champions over time, opening you up to new possibilities in-game as you gain more mechanical skill and ways to exercise it.

Whether you’re playing Expeditions, drafting a wild deck in traditional PvP, or picking apart a previously successful strategy, Legends of Runeterra finds a way to reward you for it by always having something for you to gain experience toward. Spending time in the game is investing in your future success, and the gains are often represented quite immediately in the form of new cards to toy with, bringing the most avid players back to the drawing board for more. While balance changes are undoubtedly on the horizon and the state of the game will evolve over time, Legends of Runeterra currently does a good job of introducing players to a colorful world popularised by League of Legends, and it’s a rollicking good time to boot.

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The Good

  • Champions are full of personality and an easy hook for those new to the franchise
  • Call-and-response flow of play is a nice twist on the usual format of rounds for online TCGs
  • Players can stay competitive without lapsing into pay-to-win
  • Deck building’s two-region rule allows for innovation without the frustration of total random encounters in a growing meta

The Bad

  • Specialist mechanics aren’t as intuitive to those without any League of Legends experience
  • Tutorial matches auto-failing you for coming up with a different solution can be needlessly frustrating

About the Author

Ginny Woo has been pursuing wins in Runeterra for years in League of Legends, and she jumped at the chance to cut her teeth on a new type of victory with familiar faces in tow. For the purposes of this review, Ginny played Legends of Runeterra’s Expeditions mode (draft), Challenges, beat up some robots, and enjoyed some good, old-fashioned PvP as the icing on the cake.